Oscar So White: This Is Bigger Than Will Smith

PEOPLE's critic on the Oscars' diversity crisis – and why the Smiths should maybe zip it

Photo: Getty (2)

The Academy’s out of order! The Smiths are out of order! The whole system’s out of order!

Not to get too deep in paraphrasing Al Pacino‘s 1979 drama and justice for all. as we try to make sense of this year’s #oscarssowhite controversy, but the point stands: It really is the system that’s out of order. (We’ll get to the Smiths.)

It’s easy to blame the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for this year’s lack of diversity in Oscar acting nominations. (And last year’s.) After all, it’s their show. Their 6,000 some-odd members are notoriously older, white and male. They tend to like their movies mainstream and a bit stodgy. They don’t do Netflix. And even when they do pay attention to folks of color, it’s for what my friend Marc calls “homework movies” that are explicitly about racial struggle. Did they even watch 12 Years a Slave? They didn’t have to! It hit all the buttons.

In an effort to fix the grumpy old men problem, Academy president Cheryl Boone Isaacs, who’s African-American herself, welcomed a host of younger, more diverse members last June, including David Oyelowo and Dev Patel, Tom Hardy and Kevin Hart. There also was an effort to bring more women in, including Emma Stone, Rosamund Pike and Gugu Mbatha-Raw. In other words, y’all, Cheryl tried.

So what happened next? Same controversy, different year. This time, some of the folks who were ostensibly snubbed had something to say about it. Of course, by “folks” I mean Will Smith, Jada Pinkett Smith and Spike Lee. The problem is that since Lee and Smith were both in contention for this year’s awards, it seems a bit rich that they’re the ones leading the charge against the Academy. Do they have a point? Certainly! Do I want to hear millionaires gripe about something they didn’t win? Hell no. (Besides, Smith has twice been nominated for an Academy Award, and twice lost to black people.)

Which (finally) brings me to my point: This is bigger than Will Smith. And Spike Lee. And the Oscars. This whole controversy is really about how marginalized people of color are in the entertainment industry, from the casts to the executive suites. Sure, Lee (who accepted an honorary Oscar last fall for his body of work) can make niche films outside the Hollywood system, and his loyal fans will come. But how much can he change the culture of Hollywood by working outside of it?

The Smiths, on the other hand, are the ultimate insiders. After all, Will was once the reigning king of the summer box office. But even he can’t greenlight a big-budget movie. That’s still the province of white studio moguls who make films with people who look like them – from the directors and producers to the casting agents and (usually) stars. If people of color aren’t in the room, then we’re not just functionally invisible, we’re voiceless. That’s not just bad PR for the film industry as a whole, it’s bad business.

So what’s to be done? For her part, Boone Isaacs just announced more measures to make the Academy membership more diverse and responsive. She captains a big ship and it will take time to turn it. As for the studio system, those in charge need to work harder at bringing in executives of color who can actually move up the ranks. They also need to (and in some cases do) employ more up-and-coming directors like Creed‘s Ryan Coogler, who’s helming Marvel’s Black Panther movie, due in 2018.

But the last piece is ours. We, the audience, vote with the almighty dollar. For every time a Straight Outta Compton makes $161 million or a Fast and Furious crosses $350 million, Hollywood has to pay attention. If we show up for smaller gems like last year’s Dope or Tangerine, executives – and Academy voters – will take notice. No, not every worthy film with folks of color in front of (and behind) the camera will get awards attention, but the industry can’t ignore us forever – not if we’re responsible for their paychecks. Everyone involved in the system likes to claim they’re not racist, that it’s all business, that their favorite color is green. Let’s make them prove it.

And celebrities, instead of boycotting the Oscars, show up and say something

did at the 1988 show. If people of color aren’t in the room for deal meetings and negotiations, we should at least be at the Academy Awards. What better place to make a stand than on the show the entire world watches?

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